Skin Bound by Deborah Landers
Gods walk among us, with their heads full of memories of things that were, with hands too small and a mind too big to cope with the difference. They don't hold the kind of power they did before, able to shape our world to their blueprints, to build things in their image.
Some suffer it in silence, pining for what used to be. Mortality hangs off them like a spider's web, gossamer thin yet surprisingly present. Obvious in all the ways they hate. They can't stand the memory of being more, of having the power of creation and destruction settled in their hands like their favorite weapon, now forever out of reach. Even so, they choose not to forget and resent those who do.
Some, of course, choose that, to forget that they were ever gods, that there was something greater than what they know. Some of them remembered what they were at first, held on so long it hurt before they accepted it and changed the story to write themselves out of it. Some of them lived so long they let the sheen of mortality covering them become their skin.
Then there are the third sort, the awakened gods who go about their lives conscious of mortality and divinity in the same breath, curious what it means to be both and neither, existing in the experience. Sometimes, they meet up with one another to have some connection to their memories. It was never planned, but skin bound gods seemed to orbit each other, brought together like gravity every few months, if only to see who they had lost.
* * *
Morgan sat at the picnic table atop the hill some people called a mountain. She had seen bigger mountains, had raised them larger than this in her joy and leveled them in anger. She had built more than this picnic table in her time. And yet it wasn't her time, not anymore. It was the time of mortals and everything they represented. She had adapted to their fatalistic ways, to the worship of fellow mortals and the creation of images understood across cultures for the common experience they evoked. She had cut her teeth on the ruins of civilizations, but now she argued with mortals online about who was causing their own civilization to fall.
The only thing she knew for certain was that it wasn't the fault of the gods.
"I thought I might find you here."
Morgan turned to look at Adam hovering behind her. He was one of her oldest friends, if other gods could be considered friends. His appearance had changed over time, from dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes to something more common. The dark hair remained, lightened by a few shades, but the dark eyes had turned blue, and his skin was the ambiguous shade of tan, either sun-stained or natural, which lacked the ability to place the origin of his ancestry.
It was hard to believe he was once the Christian god, but many things were difficult to believe these days. Some mornings she woke up uncertain whether the life she remembered as a goddess of war was real, or just a dream. She wondered if the others ever experienced the same crisis of consciousness.
"You're here early," Morgan remarked, pulling the dark coat slung over the table into her lap and making space for him. She sighed as she picked at bits of lint. "Am I really that bad?"
"I've been keeping my eye on you and others. Iris is further gone, especially since she met that mortal musician, but you haven't been doing well over the past year."
"We're fading, Adam. And every month, it feels like we get a little smaller. You have to have noticed that."
"Of course I have. But it's not as bad for me as it is for you..."
"No, it's not. People still actively worship you. The you that was. But me, I'm a near forgotten piece of mythology. The only people speaking my name do so in the framework of a dead religion." She twirled a lock of red hair around one knuckle and pulled, letting the pain ground her. "No one worships me."
"You are remembered though."
"As a dark figure haunting cultural memory, as a goddess of war, a harbinger of death and destruction. People love the modern idea of what I am, not what I actually represented.”
"Is something wrong?"
Morgan and Adam glanced back at Shivani. She had not changed over the years, though Morgan was sure it was more out of stubbornness than anything else. Flighty caution looked wrong on her as she fidgeted just within earshot of the picnic table, her blood red nails bright against her tan jacket and her dark skin. Her black hair and deep brown eyes were a near match for the Adam Morgan remembered, for all that the two had been at odds. But of course, who would expect a Hindu goddess to agree with a Christian god? Certainly not their followers.
"Nothing more than usual," Morgan replied, shrugging. "Is Vijay with you?"
"He'll be a little late. He's bringing Bala with him." Shivani claimed the seat on Morgan's other side. "And you know how difficult they can be when they are focused on something. He didn't want them to miss this gathering like they have the four before it."
"Have you heard from Iris?" Adam asked. "I lost track of her after the last meeting."
"She's getting married." Both Shivani and Adam glanced at Morgan, who was staring off at the horizon. Without looking she pulled an invitation from the pocket of her jacket. "The only thing left of her is the fucking rainbow on the card."
None of them spoke for a time, too caught up in the moment to worry about what to say. They had lost people before, fellow gods who had decided to embrace their humanity or near humanity. But Iris had been with them for centuries, weathering the years and making things a little bit brighter for all of them. Forgetting was one of the worst ways to go, because for those left behind, it was a kind of death, their essence still wandering the world when their mind was gone.
"She remembered you, though," Adam said gently, touching Morgan's arm. "She sent you an invitation."
Shivani took the envelope from Morgan's hands and opened it up. "This Ashley must have let her design the invitation. It has Iris embedded in every color."
"She wrote me a letter, too." The words pulled themselves out of Morgan's throat. "Before she decided. Said she didn't make the decision lightly. She wanted this."
Adam put an arm around her shoulders, holding her steady and in place. As if he knew she would run away from the meeting if given half a chance. "They all wanted this, everyone we lost. They just wanted to feel whole."
"We are whole!" She pushed him away. "We have always been whole! With or without our divinity, we have always been us. This— This is not us! This is denying everything we are, everything that made us what we are. This is lying to ourselves until we don't know the difference between the truth and the lie anymore." She ripped the invitation out of Shivani's hands, startling her. "And this is it! This is the last piece of her I have! I've been carrying so many fucking pieces of the people we've lost, all the memories of what they were and what they should still be and aren't. I pass them almost every day, feel the power they have within them and none of them recognize we are the same! How many people have we lost that are still walking around out there? A dozen? A hundred? And now Iris is one of them!" She crumpled to the ground, energy utterly spent. She didn't look up when the arms encircled her.
"I understand this," said a cool, sweet voice.
Morgan glanced back into Sasha's face. The goddess of writing from the old Egyptian pantheon had aged well. She was older than most of them physically, was possibly one of the oldest gods walking the world. At the very least, she was the oldest who still remembered what she was. The Mesopotamian gods had forgotten years ago, when their true names were forgotten. The Egyptian gods held on longer because their history, like that of the Greeks, was brought back into the minds of the people. Being remembered was half the battle some days.
Sasha petted Morgan's head lightly, holding her close as they sat on the grass. "I know what you feel, Morrigan. I know what you carry with you. The weight of your fellow gods, your friends." A lock of Sasha's salt and pepper hair dropped in front of Morgan's face and she focused on it, willing herself not to fall apart any more than she had. "I know what it is to look around and feel the years by the absence of friends. I have passed my siblings, my parents, my family in the streets and known they would never recognize me. But I cannot forget them any more than you can forget those you love."
"It's not fair," Morgan whispered. Her eyes dropped to the partially crumpled invitation in her hands. She hadn't been conscious of clutching it so tightly, but the wrinkles were evidence enough that she had. A hundred years ago, she would have been ashamed if she cried. A hundred years before that, she simply didn't cry at all because what did a goddess of war and sovereignty have to cry about. But she had known and embraced the part of her that was mortal. Iris had made it easier to understand, easier to cope with knowing she was a goddess before she was ever human. Now Iris was gone, and crying was the only thing that made sense.
When she raised her head again, Shivani and Adam had backed away, holding the attention of Vijay and Bala, who must have arrived while she wasn't paying attention. The distressed look on Vijay's face was enough to let her know that they had told him about losing Iris. Bala was eternally optimistic, believing there was a reason for everything, that their birth as mortals was part of some path they needed to walk. Morgan did not get along with them—their desire for peace and serenity clashed with the pounding of war drums in her ears, the battle cries that tore themselves out of the throats of warriors as they attacked in her name. Even when she hadn't been worshiped in decades, the sound of the battlefield followed her.
"They don't know," Sasha whispered into Morgan's hair. "They know love, they embody it in ways we do not. But they forget there is just as much care in us as in them. They forget we are not all simply what we represent or what we show them. With you, they focus so much on the war, on the fighting, they forget the greatest part of a war is the passion that drives it." She moved until they were sitting on the grass facing one another.
They stared into one another's eyes, Morgan getting lost in amber-flecked jade that was familiar and cool and reminded her of home. The hills of Ireland sang in her blood as her mind drifted to the ones she had lost, that they all lost. Sasha understood. She knew what it was to hold the memories. She knew what it was to feel the pain of them so deeply it infected her very being. She knew that Morgan, for all the pain she bore and would bear, would never choose to give up the memories, would never forget who and what she was.
"I only understand who I am in context with everyone else," she tried to explain. Surely Sasha would understand this too. "I am grounded in the knowledge that I am Morgan as much as I was the Morrigan. And I have never stopped being what I am. I can't."
"Are you going to the wedding?"
Morgan glanced up at Adam, standing just behind her. "I have to. She asked me to, and I—" She looked down at the invitation once again. "I need to say goodbye. I think she still wants me to be a part of this life. I have to give her that, at the very least."
"Someday," Sasha said quietly, "I will show you what I do when I am not here. I think you would find it helpful if nothing else."
As they began the meeting, Morgan pretended not to notice as the others treated her like she was made of glass. Sasha's hand never left her shoulder, a silent acknowledgement that she understood. And, for just a moment, Morgan could believe there was a reason for all they had gone through.
* * *
Morgan adjusted the rainbow sash she wore, checking her appearance in the bathroom mirror. She tried to ignore the way her hands shook thinking of how everything was already different, and yet so achingly similar to before she wasn't sure she could cope with seeing Iris in her wedding gown.
"Oh, sorry. I didn't know anyone was in here."
Morgan turned to the woman who entered the bathroom. "No, it's alright." It took her a moment to recognize Ashley Robinson, the woman Iris was going to marry. Her thoughts stalled for a moment, stuck on the woman because she looked so ordinary. She couldn't think why this was the person Iris chose to abandon all memory of her divinity for. Why was this woman so special? She shook herself and took a step back. "Do you need me to leave?"
"No, I just..." Ashley's gaze dropped to the sash. "Are you here for the wedding?"
"Yes. I'm a friend of Iris."
"Then maybe you can help me." She buried a hand in her thick, bushy hair. Ashley was a petite woman, and the bushy black hair looked like it added bulk to her form. Untangling her fingers from the curls, she reached into her pocket. "This will take a little explaining. Before we decided to get married, Iris and I started talking about things we would hypothetically want to happen in the wedding. One of the things she wrote down was a blessing by someone she knows, but it was like she completely forgot about it when I asked her. It seems important, but I don't know this person. I don't want this to get forgotten, not when it was important enough to her to write it down."
"Okay." Maybe Morgan could see what Iris saw in her. The goddess of rainbows loved when communication worked as it was supposed to, when people paid attention to one another, and did everything they could to make a relationship work. No relationship was perfect, and Iris understood that, but communication was something she insisted on.
"Do you know who Morgan is?"
Morgan blinked. Again, Iris's future spouse had caused her thoughts to stall. "I'm Morgan."
"Oh, thank god. This is like fate or something. Iris, she, uh..." She shoved the piece of paper into Morgan's hand. "She wanted you to bless the marriage."
Morgan opened the paper slowly. "Me? She wanted me to bless her marriage?"
"Is there something wrong with that? Can you do it?"
Glancing down at the paper, Morgan didn't answer immediately. She wasn't sure how she should answer anyway. None of the skin bound gods tended to tell anyone about their previous lives because people would think they were crazy. Still, it didn't seem right that Iris would want a goddess of war to bless her marriage. Unless she wanted it to end quickly, which Morgan doubted.
The paper didn't say much. It was filled with several ideas of things implemented in the wedding, but at the bottom in a quick scrawl was 'have Morgan give a blessing'. It was, quite possibly, the last thing Iris had written in full possession of her memories.
"I can do it," she whispered. Then, a little louder, she repeated, "I can do it."
"Thank you." Ashley clutched her arm, and Morgan found she didn't mind it as much as she thought she might. "Thank you so much. Now I should probably go before my maid of honor throws a hissy fit. Go talk to the officiate. He knows what’s going on, and he'll tell you when your part comes in."
Morgan glanced back in the mirror once Ashley was gone, wishing she had decided on something more appropriate for this sort of position. The red cocktail dress overlaid with black lace was fine for a guest, but she wasn't sure if it would suit this role. Red and black were her colors though, and Iris would want her to be herself. Sighing, she put on the crow feather earrings and tried to gather her thoughts into something like a proper blessing.
* * *
Iris was radiant. She had managed to find a dress that shimmered like a rainbow under the right light, and it suited her perfectly. Morgan almost cried as she walked up the aisle, keeping her eyes fixed on the look of awe and love on Ashley's face.
Then, all too soon, the officiate nodded at her and she stood, moving to the front. The look on Iris's face, slight recognition and confusion, hurt more than she thought it would, but they had enough memories separate from the meetings that she remembered who Morgan was as a mortal, if not how they knew one another.
Morgan was handed a microphone, and she took a deep breath before she looked up at the attendees first. "I don't think many of you know me, but my name is Morgan Byrne. Iris and I have known each other for years, so long neither of us really remember when we first met." That was a lie. Morgan remembered when they first met, back in her early mortality. "We've known each other long enough that, in her wedding plans, she wrote down that she wanted me to bless this wedding."
She held up the paper with those words written on it, though only those in the first couple of rows would be able to read it. "I have to say, I wasn't expecting this. I am better known for fighting, for chaos, than I am for anything good, but Iris is the sort of person who deserves everything I can give her. So, for her, I will try."
Morgan took a steadying breath as she turned to look at the new couple. "May your battles be short and end in mutual victories. May you always have a home in each other and a place where you can be safe. May you have every good thing you deserve. May war be the furthest thing from you, and peace the first thing you wake up to and the last thing you know at night. May you always find success in what you do, and may the gods protect your paths."
As her arm with the microphone dropped, she felt something deep inside her stirring. She gasped as a tendril of her divinity curled out from her to wrap around the couple as they shared their first kiss. It was the blessing taking hold, her first act as a goddess since she'd been born in human skin.
The tears started dripping down her face as she handed the microphone away and made her way back to her seat. If they could still access their divinity as mortals, the loss of those like Iris was that much more painful because they didn’t and couldn’t know. This changed everything they knew about what they were. Maybe they weren’t fading, as she thought they had been. Maybe they were just changing, adapting to the world they no longer quite fit.
She put those thoughts out of her mind as the officiate announced the reception. She would enjoy these moments as a regular mortal before she considered what it was to still be a goddess in this world. There was more than enough time later, an eternity.